Arts & Entertainment

Fictional Jews mix with real celebrities in 1972 Miami Beach

By Daniel M. Kimmel
Advocate staff

Author Thane Rosenbaum pens a comic look into the past. Author Thane Rosenbaum pens a comic look into the past. The summer of 1972 was an interesting moment in time, especially for Jews in Miami Beach. Both the Democratic and the Republican presidential nominating conventions were being held there that summer. Meyer Lansky, one of the last of the old-time Jewish mobsters, was holding court, having been barred from making aliyah to Israel. So was famed Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, having relocated from New York. It was a time when it was possible to run into Muhammad Ali, known as “the Greatest,” who was in training there, or Jackie Gleason, whose long-running TV show had been cancelled, but was still “the Great One.”

Into this mix author Thane Rosenbaum has added the fictional Posner family. Sophie and Jacob are Holocaust survivors whose marriage has produced a son, Adam, set to become a bar mitzvah that summer. Sophie is tough as nails and takes on Lansky at one of his poker games, winning his respect and becoming a trusted advisor. Jacob, who fought with the partisans, seems to have used up all his fight. Now he walks around Miami, occasionally having lunch with Singer, where the author prods him to tell his story. As for Adam, he feels he’s been left to raise himself, and finds some comfort in meeting football star Bob Hayes, a former Olympic sprinter. Adam is known as the fastest kid at his school, but doesn’t know if that still holds with the coming of integration.

In a series of interconnected stories, Rosenbaum uses the various Posners to explore an America that is on the verge of transformation. Lansky’s desire to bring gambling to Florida was doomed to failure, as were the dreams of the “free love” inhabitants of Flamingo Park, setting up camp to protest the two presidential candidates being anointed in Miami. Sophie ends up in a penthouse suite at Mount Sinai Hospital, where the other patient on the floor is Gleason, who is as taken with her as Lansky. And when Adam’s Little League team – he’s their ace pitcher – is in the local “World Series” against the Cuban-American kids from the other side of town, the umpire just may be Fidel Castro himself.

As you might guess, this is the literary equivalent of a funhouse ride at Disney World, the theme park that opened near Orlando the previous year. Rosenbaum wants us to be amused at the goings on, but he also has serious points to make. While set in 1972, the authorial viewpoint is very much in our present, and he will point out events yet to come in telling his stories. As often happens in such narratives, there’s a sense of a loss of innocence, as such things as the Watergate scandal, AIDs, the Internet and social networking, and so many other things that are woven into our history and our lives were yet to be. Indeed, even something like “Holocaust education,” was not yet something that was thought necessary to teach in schools, and the other characters don’t know how to react to Sophie’s being a survivor. Accused of cheating at a high stakes poker game, she replies, “I only cheat death. With cards I just play.”

Although there are connections between the stories and all the cast improbably show up at the climactic Little League game, this is a book that is perfect summer reading, in that you could read a chapter, put it aside, and then come back and quickly pick up the thread. Another novel, “ The Go-Between,” opens with the famous line that the past is a foreign country. For Rosenbaum, it’s exploring those differences between then and now that makes this both a fun and thought-provoking romp.

“How Sweet It Is,” by Thane Rosenbaum, Mandel Vilar Press, 194 pages, $24.95.


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